meaning and history of the phrase ‘feed the brute’

The phrase feed the brute is a recommendation made to a wife to provide her husband with the food necessary for his health and good condition.

For example, the following is from Doctor Barfoot’s Casebook, published in the Evening Sentinel (Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England) of 5th June 1987:

Keeping hubby fit and well

You have a handsome husband and you would like to keep him that way. Your John is medium height, slim, light on his feet and a bundle of energy. How can you preserve him into middle-age and beyond?
You want him bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — not a dreary fat man who is content to come home from work and watch television without a thought of doing something more entertaining. Don’t let your man go like that.
It’s the young wife who often sets the pattern. She it is who breaks the mould and lets it be known that she is not content to spend her evenings and her weekends gossiping with her mother or allowing his family to dominate the whole pattern of living.
[…]
Feed the brute on rations that will keep him in top condition. He mustn’t be allowed to eat what takes his fancy like endless plates of chips, fat sausages, lots of butter, cream and pork with half-an-inch of hard, white fat. Fill him with brown bread and potatoes and don’t smother them in butter, cream or sauce. Give him lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, but make sure he’s getting enough protein from eggs, fish and cheese.

In A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, American and British, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (Lanham, Maryland: Scarborough House, 1992), the New-Zealand born lexicographer Eric Partridge (1894-1979) and Paul Beale distinguish between the overt meaning of feed the brute and its covert implications:

Often there’s the overt meaning ‘That’ll keep him amiable, content, happy – and you too’. The covert implication is that a well-fed man is the more readily amorous and the more capable of attending to his wife vigorously and frequently. In the US, however, it is ‘regularly taken to mean, in order to keep him in a good temper rather than amorous’ (J.W.C.1, 1977).

(1 Professor Emeritus John W. Clark, of the University of Minnesota)

This dictionary then states that feed the brute originated in the caption to the following cartoon by the French-born novelist, cartoonist and illustrator George du Maurier (1834-1896), published in Punch, or the London Charivari (London, England) of 31st October 1885—cartoon as reproduced in Vol. III.—1874-1892 of Mr. Punch’s History of Modern England (New York, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 19-?), by Charles Larcom Graves (1856-1944):

Experientia Docet2

'Experientia Docet' by George du Maurier - from Vol. 3 of Mr. Punch’s History of Modern England, by C. L. Graves

     Wife of Two Years’ Standing. “Oh yes! I’m sure he’s not so fond of me as at first. He’s away so much, neglects me dreadfully, and he’s so cross when he comes home. What shall I do?”
     Widow. “Feed the brute!”

(2 The Latin phrase experientia docet translates as experience teaches.)

While it is true that this caption—reprinted in many British and U.S. newspapers later in 1885—popularised feed the brute, similar stories in which the phrase was used had appeared earlier. In November and December 1882, several British and Irish newspapers—for example the Belfast Evening Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland) of 6th November—reprinted the following paragraph from Vanity Fair: A Weekly Show of Political, Social, and Literary Wares (London, England) of 4th November:

A recently-married young lady, after some six months of unalloyed happiness of her wedded life, inquired eagerly of a lady friend possessing ripe experience how she should best retain the affections of her lord and master, so as to ensure a prolongation of the happy state of affairs. The friend’s reply was, “Feed the Brute!”

The story originally published in Vanity Fair was also reprinted—with a few alterations and with no mention of its source—in the Spirit of the Age (Woodstock, Vermont, USA) of 27th December 1882 and in the Saline County Journal (Salina, Kansas, USA) of 15th February 1883.

Both this story pattern and this use of feed the brute had become conventional by 1883—as clearly stated in the following paragraph published on 20th August of that year in The Eastern Daily Press (Norwich, Norfolk, England) and in The Western Morning News (Plymouth, Devon, England):

Everybody has heard the story of the young bride who spoke of the love which “Charley” shewed for her, and asking the advice of an ancient matron as to what measures she should adopt to retain affection so much prized, received for answer, “Feed the brute.”

The following version of the story appeared on 6th February 1884 in The Western Morning News (Plymouth, Devon, England) and on 9th February 1884 in both The Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser (Preston, Lancashire, England) and The Salisbury Times and South Wilts Gazette (Salisbury, Wiltshire, England):

Feed the brute,” advised the experienced matron to the young bride who asked how she could retain unimpaired the love of her husband.

The following variant was published in The Southend Standard, and Essex Weekly Advertiser (Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England) of 18th July 1884:

A lady shortly after marriage asked in confidence of a female friend what she should do to maintain the affections of her husband so that he should always love her as he did then. ‘Feed the brute’ was the rejoinder.

And both the Liverpool Mercury (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of 6th August 1884 and The Salisbury Times and South Wilts Gazette (Salisbury, Wiltshire, England) of 9th August 1884 published this version of the story:

Feed the brute,” said the wise matron who was consulted by an anxious bride as to the measures she should take to retain the valued love of a husband.

‘Penelope’ reflected on George du Maurier’s cartoon in Our Ladies’ Column. By One of Themselves, published in several British newspapers in December 1885—for example in The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post (Bristol, England) of the 5th:

There is more truth than one sees at first in Punch’s recent hit at vagrant husbands. The young wife is consulting the comfortable matron as to how she should manage her recalcitrant spouse, who, when he does come home, is so cross and disagreeable! The experience of years prompts the elder lady to exclaim “Feed the brute!” as an answer to her inquiries. Now, this may sound somewhat coarse, and most men will repudiate it, but I am quite sure that the certainty of a good dinner, and a pleasant welcome waiting for him at home, is a more powerful attraction to most men than they care to acknowledge, and women have themselves to blame if they do not see how much material matters have to do with domestic bliss. And why should it not be so? We have all bodies as well as souls. Both require ministering to, and the healthy action of the one depends on the due care of the other; so let none of us scorn to learn the little arts whereby we can make our homes as delightful as possible to those who share them with us, be they husband, brother, or even child. I terribly fear lest the attempt to raise the position of woman from that of a mere household drudge, as she is still in some countries, should produce reaction in the other direction, and that English women while wearing French bonnets and Parisian gowns, should scorn to go to market, to inspect and overhaul their kitchens, to take notes of what they see which is worthy of imitation in other households, and to give time and trouble, and, if necessary, personal labour, to secure the desired result. In this respect as well as in the art of dress, French women are inimitable, for they elevate cookery to an art, and do not despise it.

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